Prepped bed

Digging in the green manure

“Digging in the green manure” is not nearly as gross as it sounds. For one thing, there’s no poop involved!

On Fathers’ Day we came home from ten pin bowling to discover a brief moment of sunshine, and two sleeping children in the back of the car. Hello, opportunity!

So, I took half a moment to snap this photo:

Fallow garden bed

Fallow bed, before we started work

… and then it was straight into some impromptu gardening.

This bed (if you’ve been following along) has been growing nothing much at all over the winter. It started out with self-sown broccoli plants, but our visiting bunny rabbit ate most of them up (we pulled the plants for him, it wasn’t like a Killer Rabbit moment). The chickens finished off what was left, well before the end of winter, sadly.

Planting new crops mid-winter is a bit of a dud job, so it was just left fallow until last Sunday. We yanked out a tall, seeding, broccoli plant (too woody to work well as green manure) and then went to work chopping those weeds into the garden bed.

Stephen working the soil with a garden fork

Stephen is using a garden fork to loosen the soil

Stephen started off with the garden fork, getting some air in around the established roots. As soon as that picture was taken, I ducked back into the garage for the shears and hacked up the top leafy material into smaller chunks.

Then I took the garden spade and chopped into the ground, slicing up what was left and pushing the green material into the dirt. Note that we moved aside our irrigation pipes BEFORE attempting this! :)

Me, using the spade to chop up weeds

Me, throwing the spade into the soil to chop up the weeds

 (Usually I would be wearing a hat, but this bit of sunshine was a rather miraculous break in the awful wet weather we’ve been having, so I didn’t have it in the car with me. I am, however, demonstrating how to do yard work in a medieval kirtle. Just because.)

Once this was finished, a quick level with a small garden hoe and the soil was looking pretty darn good:

Weeds chopped in

Weeds chopped in, soil looking rich and dark.

All this chopping and churning means that the worms and garden micro-organisms will be able to digest up the goodness from the dead weeds much more quickly, turning it into good fertile soil with lots of broken down organic matter. This means we won’t need to use as much added fertiliser (such as animal manure) before planting our next crop. This bed will be growing tomatoes in the Summer — a pretty hungry crop — so we will be adding some cow manure before planting. It turns out we’ve run out just at the moment, though!

Never mind, we’ve covered up the soil with a cardboard box and some mulch until I can run out to the store for some more. That will keep the moisture and goodness in, and slow down germinating weeds. We will let this bed rest with a good layer of mulch for about a month, before the tomato seedlings (yet to germinate in the greenhouse) are ready to go in. This will allow the green manure time to break down, releasing the useful nutrients just in time for our hungry crop!

In the meantime, Spring is making an appearance in the garden:

I hope you are enjoying the turn of the seasons, wherever you may live!

Kitchen fork

Weeds get forked

The other day we experienced a respite from the endless rain, at which point I noticed our garlic patch had become rather overgrown with weeds:

Weeds in the garlic patch

Lots of weeds in that there garden bed!

Garlic (and other alliums) don’t really like having competition, so I decided to take advantage of the brief sunshine and nip those weeds out. Usually when I do this task, I just get in with my hands, but I felt a bit dainty that day and took a fork with me:

Old kitchen fork used for weeding

This old kitchen fork is a useful garden tool.

I brushed back some weeds and exposed the soil underneath, and then shoved with my fork to push the roots up out of the ground.

Levering up some weeds

Levering up some weeds

Sometimes I used the fork face up, and sometimes face down.

Fork used face down to pull weeds

Face down is slightly easier, I think

I also used the fork to scrape away at the surface: this made it like a mini-rake and meant I could spot where the main weed stems were, much more quickly then normal. I also ended up with way less dirt under my fingernails. Yay!

It wasn’t long before my garlic plants were liberated:

No more weeds in the garlic patch

Nice and neat

Later in the afternoon, I went out to feed those weeds to the chickens, and I discovered some cheeky cockatoos in the yard.

Cheeky cockatoos sitting on garden structures

Bold as brass, this lot

I also ran out of onions in my pantry and needed one for a recipe, so I hunted about in the broad beans bed, and found this guy:

Well formed leek

Now that’s a good bit of leek!

That’s the best leek we’ve ever grown! It made a highly delicious lentil burger patty, let me tell you.

Leeks (and alliums) aren’t supposed to do well in the same garden bed with the legume family (broad beans included). I don’t think it affected this leek very much!

Flooded overflow

Big. Wet. Garden.

The other day I mentioned that we built our raised garden beds to counteract the periodic flooding we experience.

Well, here is a good example!

Flooded lawn and play equipment

This part of our lawn floods when it rains heavily.

This water will sit here for about a week, slowly dissipating (if it stops raining, that is!). If we had put our vegetables directly into the ground, here, we would have soggy dead plants inside of lovely fresh veg. Raising up the garden bed allows the water to drain away, but also stops the long vegetable roots from becoming waterlogged when the rest of the ground is a bog.

The concrete garden edge was apparently installed as a “spreader” to collect the rainwater run-off from our very long, steep, driveway. It stops the water from pouring over the edge of the rocks into the bush in just one place. If that were allowed to happen, we would get erosion at the low point, and the water would cut away at the rock, and flow too fast over the edge.

And so, periodically, there are ponds in our lawn.

Flooded grate at the bottom of our driveway drain

This grate sits at the bottom of a very long driveway drainage pipe.

At the top of the lawn there is an overflow grate from the driveway drainage pipe. It allows excess water to wash out over the lawn. Underneath our lawn there is a large reservoir (not a water collection tank, although that would have been cool!). The reservoir has filled up and the overflow is doing its job.

Pools of water in the dirt floor of the chicken coop

The chicken coop floor looks like slurry!

Inside the chicken coop, where we don’t have grass to stabilise the ground, things are looking pretty slushy. Poor chooks – there are ponds inside the coop!

Chickens scratching for scraps and grain in the orchard

The chickens are making the best of a bad lot.

So I’ve temporarily moved their grain dispenser and put their morning scraps outside, to give them a chance to scratch at the ground, rather than just wallow like a pig!

At least, until that darn brush turkey comes along, drat him. *shakes fist*

Eucalyptus Oil

Removing stickers painlessly

Hey everyone!

Last time my kids went to preschool, they were honouring Daffodil Day — promoting awareness about cancer, and asking for a small donation. William got a real kick out of getting his Daffodil Day sticker, so he was totally unimpressed when it turned out that I had thoughtlessly washed it from his red jumper:

Sticker stain on red jacket

The sticker paper washed away, leaving behind the gummy residue. Oops!

This mark was very gummy to touch, a bit like a rubber glove crossed with a sticky toffee. Not going to just rub off with my fingertips!

I immediately turned, as I always do in moments like these, to Eucalyptus Oil:

100% pure eucalyptus oil

I use 100% pure, not the diluted stuff.

This stuff is magic for removing stickers and labels from pretty much anything I’ve tried it on! Mostly I use it for getting the remnants of labels from glass bottles, but I’ve had success with fabric too.

Just take a cleaning cloth and dab on some Eucalytpus oil. Rub away at the area, and in moments …

Sticker partially cleaned away

Almost there …

… the muck just comes clean away!

It doesn’t even really wet the area, but it does make a very (nice!) strong smell. Moments later, I had cleaned off the sticky mess, leaving me with a clean jacket ready to wear.

Clean jacket

All clean again!

The smell dissipated over about half an hour and Will didn’t notice anything amiss when he put in on this morning.

I also use a few drops of Eucalyptus Oil in the fabric softener slot in my washing machine, for loads I want to freshen up (eg. nappies, towels and linens). I’ve never had a problem with it changing colours on fabrics, but if you are concerned, test the inside of your garment first! This time I noticed some faint redness on my working cloth:

Faint red smudge on the cleaning cloth

Faint red smudge on my cleaning cloth

It may be that the colour came off the metal press-stud, or it may have come off the fabric. I didn’t notice any difference in colour on the jacket, but use caution for a special garment. :)

Easy peasy, pudding pie!

Kookaburra snacking

Birds in the bush

Despite the dry weather recently, we have had a remarkable amount of wildlife visiting our garden in recent months.

Our most frequent and obvious visitor is a Brush Turkey who comes over our neighbour’s fence, into our orchard:

Brush Turkey

The brush turkey: find him below the glowing dak pot (organic fruit fly control)

Here he is, hiding at the back of the orchard, where I chased him for a photo. He’s a menace – he gets into the chicken coop and eats the food and scraps in there. Then, about midday he gets randy, and chases my chickens all around the orchard, trying to land on the back of them. O_o

This behaviour means that my poor chickens spend much of their time closed up in their coop, because they really hate this treatment, and I don’t want the turkey to keep coming back. Nothing seems to deter him, though. We will have to put the roof onto our orchard to keep him out once and for all!

Another visitor I spotted the other day is a nectar bird that comes in to sip from the Grevillea growing inside the chicken coop:

Bird flying crazily in the coop

I surprised this bird into crazy flight when I came in at the coop door.

This one visits much less frequently. They are hard to spot when they are sipping at the grevillea flowers, and it’s not until you startle them by coming near the coop that you even realise they are there!

Meanwhile, outside in the garden we often see kookaburras hunting in our yard:

A kookaburra perching on a rock in our yard.

A kookaburra fluffs its plumage after catching a meal in our garden.

This one was perched for several minutes on our lawn rock. Mostly they stop on top of the trellises where they get a great view of the garden. They wait and look at you out of side of their faces, then they swoop down to catch something tasty! Then they hop back up onto their perch and chill for a bit. :)

The chickens don’t mind the small birds visiting them. In fact, they are pretty relaxed birds in general. They are now ALL laying, although it was hard to tell that Cricket had started because her eggs are very similar to Raven’s:

Fresh laid chicken eggs from all four chooks

L to R: Matilda, Raven, Cricket, Harriet

Matilda’s eggs are distinctly whiter than the other eggs. And Harriet’s eggs are clearly different, being speckled and much darker brown. But until Cricket and Raven *both* laid an egg on the same day, I was not a hundred percent sure she had started laying.

I am now, though!

Chicken eggs often get bigger as a chicken gets older, so it’s possible that I’m mixing up Cricket’s egg with Raven’s. But the shorter egg is much the same as Raven laid last season, and the taller egg is much bigger … so I’m sticking with my guess for now. :)

By the by, I’ve finally settled on a good storage container for our fresh eggs: This is a wire basket from Ikea that I’ve lined with a tea towel. Ultimately I’d like to put it up on the wall instead of resting on the counter, but for now, it does fine.

If you collect your eggs straight from your hen (or buy them “farm fresh”) then you can store them out of the refrigerator for weeks. I turn them a little when I add new eggs, putting new ones in at the right hand side, and taking eggs from the left to eat.

Storing them this way means I’m always eating the oldest eggs first, and they aren’t sitting in ugly cardboard egg boxes on our counters. If the basket gets too full and I can no longer rotate the eggs, it’s time to give some away!

Do you have a favourite way to store your eggs?

The winter garden

I have been taking photographs and composing blog posts in my head, but somehow, not making it to my keyboard to actually type these things up! Bad blogger, no biscuit for you!

So, here’s a bunch of garden pictures from mid winter to mildly amuse you. A little background to these shots — it has been incredibly dry here these last couple of months. I think we may have had about 5 mm of rainfall in that time, it’s pathetic. I mentioned a long while ago now that the dirt floor of the chook run was looking very dusty — no rain of note since then.  These photos were taken during that dry patch, and the garden is looking a little withered, and the chook run is hard and compacted.

This last week, however, the heavens have opened up and given us a dose of classic Sydney rain: sideways-in-the-face. Thanks, Sydney! This has caused the usual flooded back yard, and is the reason why we have raised garden beds. I didn’t have a chance to snap a picture of the flooding yet — it was brief this time and the ground soaked it up like a sponge.

So, without further ado, some pictures!

Pantry

The Great Pantry Caper

It all started with the capers.

Well, actually, it all started with putting the pantry doors back on!

Disorganised pantry

My disorganised pantry

My tidy open-shelf pantry quickly deteriorated into a disorganised shemozzle as soon as I put the doors back on. Within about ten minutes, I swear!

Lately it has been difficult to shop effectively with my pantry in this state. It isn’t really so very bad, but it has been building up to a crescendo of silly. I seem to have a bit of a blind spot for capers, it appears.

Cluttered pantry shelf

This was the worst of the shelves.

Where have my Capers gone? I know, I’ll buy another jar. Actually, I’ll buy two jars just to make sure I don’t run out.

And yet, I never seem to have any capers!

The time had come (the Walrus said) to think of many things! Chiefly, separating my stockpile from my pantry, once and for all.

Organised pantry

Hey presto, organised!

And then, in a blink, it was DONE(*). Now the pantry is only storing items that are in active use — bags we have opened are emptied into the “active” container (eg. rolled oats, cashew nuts etc.), but items that are still sealed up are now in my stockpile location.

Stockpiled goods on the kitchen counter

Stockpile items

Okay, so the kitchen counter is not the final destination for my stockpiled goods!

From this pic you can see just how much stockpile stuff I had crammed into my pantry. It turns out that you need a lot more space around objects you use frequently, in order for it to stay organised! Pulling these stockpile items out means I can (theoretically) store like items together and keep track of when they are running low. I can “shop my home” when I need to refill my pantry, instead of going off to the shops! Sounds great.

Stockpile moved to an Expedit shelf

The new stockpile location

… so now the stockpile is in the laundry. It’s a work-in-progress as I only have a bit of space cleared, and the boxes I removed are now “stored” on the kitchen table. But it is so much better. I wish I’d done this ages ago!

What I learned from this

First of all, my pantry shelves are too deep — items stored behind other items get forgotten about! My new pantry organisation has hardly any items stored behind. Only those items that are infrequently used (like the preserving salt) go behind.

Second, it’s easier to pull containers out from the pantry if there is some space around the boxes to get your hands in. Stacking my containers shoulder-to-shoulder was too cluttered.

Finally, taking the stockpile items out made enough space that I could group items together (like all the nuts, all the dry staples, etc.). I could also put healthy foods down low (cereals) and unhealthy snacks up high (lollies!) so the kids have a good example of food at their eye level.

I also learned that there were containers storing things I never use, so I liberated those boxes and gave the contents to the chickens (eg. quinoa — I made baby food from this, but I just don’t use it any more!)

Oh — and it turns out I had FIVE bottles of capers in the pantry. Go figure.

(*) You know this didn’t really happen in a blink, didn’t you? *wink*

20140612-144718.jpg

Eating less meat – beef stew

Well golly, just where did that whole month go?

I’ve been busy — apparently quite busy. But I’ve had some posts cooking away in the back of my mind, and I’ve finally found some time to sit down and write one up!

A while back my local butcher changed hands again, and when it opened back up I found a new section for bulk meats at the end of the counter. Woohoo! No doubt they would previously have done me a bulk meat deal (they also do whole or half carcasses, if you’ve the storage space for that kind of thing, for example), but having the specials lined up right there in front of me made the price, and the quantity less overwhelming.

I didn’t realise that I could get a whole piece of chuck and not have it be some enormous thing I wouldn’t be able to process! Here is my piece of chuck cut up into cubes for stewing, and portioned into boxes (there were six portions, but only five are shown):

Stewing beef ready for the freezer

Stewing beef, cut up and ready to freeze.

Each of these portions will make one large family meal of slow cooked stew (about five or six adult serves)!

There is 410 grams of meat (approximately) in each box, after most of the fat has been cut away (that’s less than 1 lb for those who measure pounds and ounces). Which is why this post is about eating less meat!

If you’ve been wondering how to cut down on your meat consumption, and increase the amount of vegetable in your diet, then making a meat and vegetable stew is a great place to start.

  • Buying your meat in a bulk piece is cheaper, and doesn’t take long to prepare into cubes. (It took me about half an hour to do this prep.)
  • Once you’ve prepped the meat, it’s so quick to prepare a stew. I find I don’t even need to defrost the meat before adding it to the pot.
  • You need to be able to store your uncooked meat in the freezer, so make sure you have space before you buy in bulk!
  • The key to making this meat go further is to use lots of vegetables.

Here is my pot of stew, bubbling on the stove:

Hot beef stew

Hot beef stew, in my largest pot

The veg I threw into this one included:

  • an onion
  • two small sweet potato (kumera)
  • three or four potatoes
  • pumpkin (winter squash)
  • 2 carrots
  • one whole large capsicum (bell pepper)
  • [Update] I totally forgot tomato! Silly me. 3-4 chopped tomatoes, or 1 tin “whole peeled”

It ended up being a little bit like a Goulash, so I added some sweet paprika as spice (about a tablespoon), and cracked pepper (from my grinder – not a large amount).

When I’m starting the stew I always begin with a generous slug of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and some chopped onion. This I sizzle until the onion starts going translucent, then I add about a quarter cup of plain flour and stir it through. This makes a kind of onion-y “Roux” which will thicken the stew when I add liquid.

Toasty Ciabatta

Toasty Ciabatta curtesy of my apprentice baker friend!

I then add my meat (it wasn’t frozen this time because I’d just prepped the batch, but subsequently I’ve added frozen and just teased pieces off the lump with a fork as it starts browning). If I’m not in a hurry I will let the meat brown up a little, but it’s not uncommon for me to skip over this step!

Next I add in all my chopped vegetables, and stir everything around a bit until it all looks combined.

Then I add liquid (in this case, a quarter cup of leftover red wine and some hot vegetable stock). How much liquid? Good question! I think it depends on your pot and how much veg you put in. I let the liquid come up around the contents, but not ‘cover’. Basically, veg and meat pokes up out of the liquid.

Fresh broccoli florets

Fresh picked broccoli florets cooked on the side.

I boil water to make my stock using stock powder, because it’s quick and easy. That way when I add the liquid to the pot it is already hot, and doesn’t take too long to start to simmer. I also scrape the bottom of my pot to ‘deglaze‘ it (ie. get all the tasty browned meaty bits incorporated into the stew, and to stop it burning onto the bottom).

With chuck steak pieces, you want to simmer it for at least an hour and a half. I tend to let it go for a while and check it every now and then. Don’t simmer too hot or the liquid will go runny instead of thick! I find that mashing up a bit of the pumpkin thickens it up nicely, though.

When it is ready, serve it up with a small amount of toasted bread and some greens on the side. If you prefer to add greens directly, try some fresh Kale or Spinach in the hot stew about two minutes before serving! Yum! And a squeeze of lemon, maybe. Mmm.

 

Beef stew with toasted Ciabatta

All plated up!

 

 

 

Our flock

The coup in the coop

Yesterday, it seems, the balance of power in our chicken coop shifted.

Our flock of chickens

The flock, with curious Cricket investigating.

Our ‘boss’ hen, Raven, remains in her happy (and oblivious) position at the top of the pecking order, but something has upset Harriet’s apple cart. I can’t say I’m terribly sorry for her, as it appears Harriet has grown into a bit of a bully.

Chickens scratching over scraps

Harriet and Matilda happily scratching over scraps

She started out the smallest chick in the coop, at about 8 weeks old. We named her “Harriet” because she would shoot about like a Harrier jet, darting away from all the other chooks. Perhaps she felt she had something to prove, but once she hit the number two spot, she was pretty relentless in keeping an eye out on the up-and-comers.

Rose and Matilda pecking scraps

The competition: Matilda, and ‘Rose’

She certainly had daggers drawn for our hen-turned-rooster, ‘Rose’. Despite the fact that he was almost twice her size, she never let up chasing him around.

Now, however, she is decidedly meek. What has happened? I can’t tell from their behaviour as a group, but I suspect that Matilda has made a stand, and as is often the case with a bully, Harriet has backed right off.

I think the new pecking order is something like:

Raven -> Matilda -> Harriet -> Cricket

It’s the boss chook’s job to look after the vulnerable chickens, but Cricket is really no longer in that category. Look at the size of her now! I think she might be the biggest chicken, physically, in the coop:

Chickens preening after a snack

Fluffing up, after a snack (Cricket on the right)

Raven and Cricket still run together like BFFs, so it’s hard to know for sure what the pecking order is. Cricket is still skittish of Harriet, but Harriet is now deferring to both Matilda and Cricket, who are getting first serves at the goodies. Matilda also frequently roosts above the other chickens, balanced on the upper coop ventilation window (silly chook!). Whereas Harriet still roosts on the level with Raven. Cricket seems to prefer either being sat on by Raven (or squished against the wall), or roosting below Raven on a lower perch.

Really, chicken politics is almost as silly as real politics. Am I right?

Tomato sauce

Home-made tomato sauce

Recently I realised I wouldn’t be able to purchase my favourite bottled tomato sauce — Roasted Garlic and Onion — from my organic box supplier. This is a total bummer, because I *love* that stuff, it’s delicious. It also comes in wonderful brown glass bottles which are great to re-use, as the brown colour helps keep the produce fresh (it filters the sunlight better).

My organic box service *does* offer “cooking tomatoes”, however, which are rejected first grade fruit. Normally organic tomatoes sell for $12 per kg, which is pricey compared to regular supermarket tomatoes at $8 per kg. But the organic “cooking tomatoes” are sold for $3.50 per kg, which is a total win.

So, recently I made up a batch of my own sauce, using these tomatoes. Here’s how doing it yourself compares:

  • Bought sauce: $4.80 for 700 mL. Organic ingredients. Contains ONLY tomatoes, garlic, onion and NOTHING ELSE.
  • My sauce: $3.50 for 1kg tomatoes (organic), 1 head home-grown garlic (organic), 2 onions at 99c per kg (not organic, I used what I had). This made 4 jars of 375 mL sauce.

Verdict: the professional sauce still wins on flavour, although my sauce was very good this time. The flavour would have been even better if I had time to ripen the tomatoes for a few days on my kitchen bench. In the end, my sauce wins on availability, and was cheaper!

These prices are in Australian dollars, and in our supermarket it costs $3.30 for a 500 mL bottle of a “leading brand” of sauce — NOT organic. Making your own sauce is a very affordable way to eat better quality food. No salt! No sugar! You just don’t need that stuff; tomatoes are delicious all by themselves.

Here’s how to do it (and it’s easy):

Slice up some tomatoes, and lay them in a baking dish.

Halve your onions and lay them cut-side up.

Pull apart a head of garlic (or half a head, or however much you want), and scatter the cloves about.

Tomatoes, onion and garlic ready to bake

Tomatoes, onion and garlic ready to bake

Drizzle everything with olive oil. You don’t need to drench it! Just for seasoning.

Bake in a moderate oven (180 °C) for an hour and a half (give or take). (Warning: this step will make everyone in your house VERY hungry.)

After baking.

I baked for 1 hr 20 minutes. It smelt delicious!

Let it cool on the bench, then remove and discard the onion and garlic skins.

Push all the bits through a sieve (a ‘mouli’, or ‘food mill’ is what I use, and it takes about two minutes). This bit is messier if you don’t have the right tools, but a sieve will do the job. Don’t use a food processor as this chops into the seeds and can give a bitter flavour to the sauce.

If the sauce is too watery for your taste,  you can reduce the sauce for a little while on the stove. I would have done this if I had time, but everyone was hungry when I got home, and I just sieved-and-served, so to speak.

 

Two bottles of tomato sauce

Two jars of 375 mL sauce. We ate about this much straight away with pasta (five bowls, about 4 adult serves).

The mouli makes this incredibly easy. My mum used a mouli to make all my soft baby food, I believe, rather than using a food processor. You may find one worth the investment, especially if a food processor is out of your price range. It can’t do everything a food processor can, but on the other hand, it’s about one tenth the price. :)